CONSTRICTION Daniel Enderle
Looking down through the grime of his third floor window to the street, with its closed steel shutters, Hank viewed the few passers-by as a litany of the halt and the lame. It seemed each of them had a hitch in their get-along. He closed one eye and tracked them with the snub barrel of his pistol as they staggered along the block dangling lumpy white plastic bags from their gnarled hands. He knew he was far more likely to shoot himself than any of them. The world was a shabby place and, not for the first time, he gave serious credence to the option of an early exit. He sighed at the thought that, as he was now several years past fifty, it would be, at best, only a relatively early departure. If his life was represented as a single day, he would now be in the late afternoon.
As for this actual day, it was an early Sunday morning in winter and, as he sat by the drafty window next to the warmth of the open oven in the kitchenette of his no bedroom apartment, his thoughts turned from offing himself to the viability this; his only surviving chair. The place had come with two chairs and a Formica-topped table. The other chair had crapped out three weeks earlier as he stood on it to change a lightbulb. That resulted in a broken arm and the loss of his dead-end job. No one had signed his cast. The remains of the broken chair sat in the corner. The burned out bulb remained in the overhead socket. A glass half full of vodka sat on the table and beside it stood the empty bottle.
The cheap pistol was a six-shot revolver with just three bullets loaded boy, girl, boy, girl between the empty chambers. Although he’d done it that way to accommodate his need for symmetry, he acknowledged to himself that the arrangement did facilitate the possibility of Russian Roulette.
Thinking about shooting himself made him feel as sick as the thought of limping through another day. He wasn’t sure he could do it, but he had done some research. It‘s sort of tricky getting the job done with a small caliber weapon. It turns out that the method indicated by the universal sign language for suicide of a raised thumb with the index finger to the temple is highly problematic and can sometimes result in nothing more than blindness and an even more diminished sense of joie de vivre. Hitler, God bless him, did it right; he took poison and then tucked the muzzle under his chinny chin chin before pulling the trigger and doing some critical damage to his shriveled little cerebral cortex. And, at least, Hitler had gone out with his girlfriend by his side.
Hank’s pleasant reverie ended with the intrusion of an entirely novel sound which, at first, he thought might be an auditory hallucination. The doorbell chimed three times. In the 27 months he had lived there he had never heard it before. He didn’t even check it when he moved in. He had never once even thought about it. He put the gun on the table next to the empty vodka bottle and looked above the door to the painted-over gizmo on the wall. He’d have sworn he’d never seen it. It seemed out of character for this flat. It should have been a crummy buzzer instead of a bell. Then it chimed four times.
It’s funny about car horns and door bells. With the horn, you can tell whether it’s just a reminder that the light’s green or if the guy behind you is calling you an inattentive asshole. With the bell, you know whether the person at the door can’t wait to see you or if they’re really hoping you aren’t going to answer. In this case, whoever was pushing that button had big news.
Hank retied the belt on his bathrobe, turned two locks, drew the deadbolt, unhooked the chain, put a foot out as a stop, and opened the door just wide enough to look out into the dim hallway where a he saw a tiny white haired ballerina dressed in a pink leotard, a tutu, and dance slippers. She, also, was entirely unfamiliar to him. She was in motion shifting from foot to foot and rising up on her toes. She rubbed her hands together. You gotta see this! He’s wrapped around my icebox, she shouted.
Come on. You’ll see.
She grabbed his big hand with her little one and tugged him towards the stairs. He broke free.
Hold on, he said and stepped back inside for his keys. He downed the rest of his vodka and took a hard look at the pistol, but left it right there.
When he closed the door behind him she was halfway up the first flight of stairs looking back at him with a fierce grimace. Her teeth were very white. He followed her up past the fourth floor. He watched the muscles ripple in her thighs. He found it erotic and thought, dude, she’s old.
Her door was open and she walked to the center of the single room and stood with one hand on her hip and the other pointing towards her kitchenette.
Wow, your place is just like mine, he said. But there was one key difference; the long wall across from the two windows was all mirrored and a horizontal rail four feet from the floor ran the length of it. There was a child’s old fashioned iron bed, a lamp draped with floral handkerchiefs, and a wingchair with wood armrests carved in the shape of griffins. There was a Formica-topped table with two chairs between a window and the stove. The rest of the space was just the empty hardwood floor except for a small Persian carpet between the bed and the wingchair. The mirror reflected the gray light of the clouds coming in the windows and that temporarily dazzled him so that, at first, he did not see the enormous white snake wrapped around the refrigerator.
It was an older model; smaller than his, with a big chrome lever to open it. On the door was the word “HotPoint.” That seemed odd for a device meant to keep things cold. He knew his mind was working these details to keep him from dealing with the reality of the very big snake coiled around the refrigerator which was boosted at an angle away from the wall. It was a snake. It was real. It was big. And it was wrapped twice around the refrigerator.
She remained pointing at the snake, but she was staring at him.
Is it yours?
Of course not, you imbecile. Why would I have a big fucking snake in this tiny studio? Why would I need your help if I was used to having a big fucking snake choking my icebox?
Well, what do you expect me to do about it?
I don’t know, but you’re a man aren’t you? What else are you good for?
Why did you pick on me, he asked.
Because you were home for Christ’s sake. No one else answered the door.
I kinda wish I hadn’t.
Well, you did. So deal with it. Broken arm or no broken arm, you’re on deck.
We should call the cops, he said.
Fuck the police. I got enough trouble without those bastards barging in here. Do something.
Where did it come from, he asked.
How the hell do I know? From the snake place I guess. Get it the hell off my fucking icebox.
Then what I am supposed to do with it?
First things first, bright boy, she said.
He stepped past her and looked at the snake. Its red eyes were half closed. She’s cold. That’s why she curled around the refrigerator. She likes the heat from the motor.
How do you know so much all of a sudden?
My brother had a snake when we were kids.
What kind of snake?
It was a corn snake.
Was it this big, she asked.
No way. This is an albino python. A big one.
Yeah, it takes‘em years to get this big. He rubbed the smooth skin behind the head. She’s a good girl.
How do you know it’s a girl?
I can just tell.
So pull her off my Goddamn icebox.
There’s no way. She’s all muscle. She’s not going anywhere until she warms up.
Well, that ain’t gonna happen until spring. The heat doesn’t make it up here to five.
It doesn’t make up to the third floor either. Let’s turn on the oven. He turned the knob for the oven and the ones for the burners. Do you have a big pot?
What are you going to do? Cook it?
No fill it with water. Put it on low. The steam will help.
Once the water started heating up they stood there looking at the snake. It hadn’t moved and took no notice of them. They continued watching for several minutes until she said, so what do we do now?
I don’t know. This might take a while. Do you have anything to drink?
She didn’t smile, but she did say, that’s the smartest smart thing I’ve heard out of you.
I got some shit for your ass. That’s what I have.
What is it?
Sit down and shut up, she said. She pointed at the wing chair. He sat and she pulled up a rickety wooden chair just like the ones in his place. She set an old fashioned wooden milk crate between them and placed two little crystal glasses on it. His was green and hers was purple. From a kitchen cabinet she produced an oddly shaped brown bottle with an intricate stopper. She filled their glasses to the brim. He could smell the liquor. He looked over at the snake and saw the eyes shift and the tongue flicker twice.
What’s this stuff?
Just drink it. Little sips.
He liked it. Strong, just a little bitter, and a little fizzy.
What is it?
It’s a narcotic.
Wow. This is good. My name’s Hank. What’s yours?
He held up his glass and said, Gladys.
She raised hers and said, Hank.
They both raised their eyebrows in salutation and each took another sip. They stopped talking. She kept pouring. Either time passed very quickly or it stopped all together; he couldn’t tell. The windows had steamed over and were now translucent. At one point he remembered to look at the snake and thought she had unclenched. Her eyes were closed.
The ballerina hummed a little song and refilled their glasses. Later, Hank set his glass down and gripped a griffin’s head with his good hand. He closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them he found Gladys kneeling right between his sprawled legs. She gripped the waist of his sweat pants and pulled them right under his ass and down to his ankles.
What are you doing? His tongue was too big for his mouth.
I’m going to blow your mind, she said.
You’ve been doing that since I met you.
Shut up, she said. Then she removed her dentures, uppers and lowers, and set them on the milk crate wrapped in a floral handkerchief.
You’re so little, he said.
You’re not so big yourself. Her voice sounded different without the teeth.
She put her mouth on him and it was good. He’d never been gummed before, but it was good.
He thought, dude, she’s so old. Then he didn’t think anything. He lost track of himself. She took her time.
When he came she took up her glass and downed its contents in a gulp and then she laid back on the small Persian carpet with the back of her hand pressed to her mouth and giggled. They both slept.
When he woke, ages later, the windows were still steamed, but the light had changed. He looked up at the ceiling for a long while. Gradually his gaze shifted and he watched the red of a blinking neon sign behind the gauzy reflected frame of window in the mirrored wall. He shifted his eyes again and noticed his own, still seated, reflection. His pants were down. He tried to make eye contact with the figure in the chair and found himself instead distracted by something else he saw in the mirror. On the hardwood floor before him was the image of some weird kind of reverse mermaid. It was backwards. Instead of the top half of a lady he saw only her legs and, instead of a fish, he saw a serpent.